The night of the 2020 NBA Draft was filled with happy feelings for Minnesota Timberwolves fans. Longtime favorite Ricky Rubio was returning to the place where it all started after three seasons away. Arguably, there was more excitement for Rubio’s return than selecting Anthony Edwards first overall.
It wasn’t just the fans who were excited, either. “It started to really make more sense for me to really connect the puzzle and get to Minnesota and help a young team with a lot of talent and already have done really good things. I feel like I can fit in the puzzle,” Rubio told the Athletic in November.
Rubio was honest about his feelings around his departure but was adamant he was ready to help a young team while growing as a player over his time away.
Feels Like The First Time But Not In A Good Way
Fast forward to present time, and if we’re being completely honest, the highlight of Rubio’s return to Minnesota was sadly the night the trade was announced. Aside from Rubio’s slow start, the team has seriously struggled through the first half of the schedule. At 7-28, the Timberwolves have the worst record in the league. Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell have been injured and/or in the health and safety protocol. Malik Beasley is serving a 12-game suspension. Coach Ryan Saunders was dramatically replaced in late February.
Losing and frustration has never sat well with Rubio. I can recall many nights in the Timberwolves locker room where Rubio addressed the media after a loss. Each defeat clearly bothered him, causing him to slump in his chair and give his answers in a dejected tone.
Rubio has seldom shied from voicing his frustrations. After one loss in 2016, Rubio said, “We can accept making mistakes and [when we] don’t make shots. Playing with no heart, with no desire, it’s just awful. Right now, it’s just bad” and added, “And it seems like we didn’t care.”
In Rubio’s defense, he had lost a lot by that season— his last before leaving the Timberwolves. Rubio never won more than 40 games in his first Timberwolves stint. In his other first seasons with the team, the team won 31 (twice), 29, 26, and 16 games. Rubio had to wait until he got to Utah to play his first playoff games in his seventh NBA season.
Rubio also dealt with constant job insecurity on top of losing, telling the Salt Lake Tribune in 2018 that, “Every day is different news. … I got ‘traded’ like 10 times when I was here, and until that [actually] happens, you can’t think about that every day, When it happens, it will happen. The players who are here gotta play to win every time” about his time in Minnesota.
Time Is A Flat Circle
Rubio’s frustration has understandably resurfaced this season. Following Sunday’s loss to Phoenix, Rubio spoke candidly about the state of the team when asked about building a winning culture with little evidence of success.
“It’s easy to get lost in that transition. There is evidence it may work. It happened with Philadelphia, I guess. ‘Trust the Process’ when they went two or three years really bad but then started winning. But I kinda don’t believe in that kind of season. You have to build good habits from Day 1. I don’t think we are in the right way, to be honest.
“I can be here and try to be positive but we have the worst record in the league. We’ve lost too many games by 20-plus. I don’t feel like this is building something. It’s hard. You always have to take positive things. Of course, we’ll watch film and get better. At some point, we gotta start wanting to change something and it’s not happening.”
Rubio acknowledged the challenges of a midseason coaching change for a young team. However, he also said while players want to win now, “but I guess we gotta be patient.”
The implications here are that the Timberwolves aren’t building good habits and that he doesn’t see how this improves. When asked what needs to change, Rubio said, “If I knew I’d be the GM. When things haven’t gone well I’ve looked at myself and I step up my game. The last two games, not really. The last two weeks I was playing better. Starting on me, just being who I am as a player: pressuring the ball, leading, communication. And with the roster, fix things here and there.”
However, Rubio also gave a fair, honest, and rather accurate assessment of the Timberwolves near the break.
“When you’re young and you gotta play through the mistakes, I understand. But at a certain point, if you do the same mistake over and over again, it means you’re not learning. Learning through mistakes as a young team can happen but then make different mistakes. I think we’re doing the same mistakes over and over on defense and offense. On offense, bad shot selection. On defense, bad communication.
“Basketball is easy and hard at the same time. It’s easy if it’s played the right way. It’s hard to play when it’s the wrong way. It’s five guys who have to be connected and even half a second late here and there changes everything. We don’t realize how important it is to be ready. A little thing in the second quarter can affect the game so much, we don’t realize. They [the Suns] ran a play for [Devin] Booker like 10 times and score in a different way. They torture us in the pick ‘n’ roll. The small was setting a back screen for a big, they had every option out there and we were calling out the play and still couldn’t stop it. It’s because we weren’t ready to take it to the next level.”
Paved With Good Intentions
In the interest of full-disclosure: I was not really interested in bringing Ricky Rubio back. The backcourt was crowded enough at the time and he didn’t quite seem to fit the front office’s vision for the team. Considering the team had moved on, it made little sense to bring back such a prominent piece of the past.
Yet, I can say that both his and the team’s seasons have played out worse than either side likely imagined. If you replayed this season over and over, this would have to be one of the worst outcomes.
Rubio’s frustrations are completely understandable. He wanted to win before he left Minnesota and received a taste of success after leaving. It’s hard to imagine him deciding he didn’t care about winning anymore. Yet, wasn’t more losing the biggest likelihood for this Timberwolves team? Even if you thought they would contend for the play-in tournament, you’re still just talking about competing for the 10th seed. Losing on a young team was likely always going to be part of the deal.
Based on Rubio’s comments on Sunday and remarks he made after leaving, Rubio didn’t appreciate losing and constant trade rumors in his first Minnesota stint. If anything, it’s the fans’ appreciation for him that made him feel like he belonged. Rubio talked after the trade about how people treated him like a rock star when he arrived in the U.S. and has praised the local fans many times.
But this is a season largely without fans. There are no large ovations or crowds to get behind. That element is not there.
There is no doubt Rubio is right about a lot, if not all, of what he said on Sunday. This team consistently loses games in a similar fashion. It doesn’t seem to matter who the coach is or who is in the lineup. Looking at this team and seeing much significant progress is difficult.
Once again, it seems like Rubio and the Timberwolves are on different paths. Rubio wants to win at this stage of his career and this team cannot offer that to him. Seeing the Rubio-Timberwolves reunion as a long-term pairing is difficult. There was a chance for it to succeed but no team hits on every move.